Evening Game Drive

Later that afternoon, we join two other couples over a cup of afternoon tea and then climb aboard a specially adapted Land-Rover.  Sitting stadium style it ensures all six of us have prime viewing position as we set out on our first game drive of this safari. 
The Sabi Sand Reserve is a private tract of land with only very few lodges given the traversing rights which means a lot of land to cover and hardly ever another soul in sight.  It is fenced with the perimeter patrolled for any gaps and to keep out would-be poachers.  But the boundary on the east is shared with famed Kruger National Park and is completely unrestricted allowing large numbers of wild game to have freedom of access from this game rich Park – roughly the land mass of New Jersey. 
 Within minutes of driving we see tall and graceful giraffe, a perky little family of impossibly ugly warthog, camera shy kudu antelope with the male sporting magnificent curling horns.  Everywhere we hear the rasping guttural sound, almost a snort, of the male impala.  It is rutting season.  Young males tussle and display, engage in mock battles with the clash of curved horns, frisking of tails and general prinking and prancing as oblivious to us, they show off and try and impress the females.
The African afternoon light turns golden and shadows lengthen as we stop to enjoy an essential African ritual – that of sundowners.  Our guide and tracker adopt dual roles of bar-tender and story-teller as we sip on ice-cold beers or tangy gin and tonic, stretch our legs and listen to animal accounts from days past.  We admire the pristine bush that surrounds us and our ears ring with the deep quiet of the wild.  It is almost as if we can hear the earth herself breathing.
We load up again and in the last of the golden light we round a corner and there before us, enjoying the sun-embedded warmth trapped in the sandy road, lie lion!  Two males and one female – brothers and their sister, we are told, and members of a larger family group who are, no doubt, near by.  Thrilled and completely enthralled we sit quietly and watch.  They lift their enormous heads to acknowledge our presence and gaze with golden topaz eyes, completely devoid of emotion – calculating – we are only 6 ft from them and their prominent vertebrae and lean stomachs tell us they haven’t eaten in a while.  But years of living alongside this strange beast of many heads (the vehicle and us) has taught them the futility of attacking us. We are no threat and metal does not taste very good…
The game guides or rangers never go out on a drive without their rifles and all are trained to shoot to kill should a human life be threatened.  But this only as a last resort.
The light is fading fast now as the large orange sun sinks with leaded gravity towards the horizon, and the big cats stir and begin to move.  The boys swipe playfully at one another, yawning and showing off their teeth – each huge canine the length of my hand!  While sister gets up and stretches for all the world like my domestic cat at home.  She appears to disdain the boys at their games and slowly pads off on enormous paws and is soon swallowed up by the dusk bush.  The boys are more accommodating or perhaps just idle as they stick to the road and circumvent muddy puddles from a recent tropical downpour.  We follow slowly with the tracker keeping the spotlight on them as they move down the road.  One of the males veers off into the bush and we continue to follow the lone regal gait of this King of the African Bush for all intents and purposes as if we too, are part of his royal procession.
“Watch, wait…. Listen” says our ranger.  Suddenly, the awesome and almighty sound of a lion roar!  A sound that carries across dense and varied bushveldt, sandy plain or wooded hills, for a full 5 miles.  We are less than ten feet from the king as he roars into the night and ends in a series of spine-chilling grunts.  It is immediate and unquestionably human goose-bump material!  We are electrified, our very bones vibrate and every hair feels as if it is standing on end.  Breathless we wait and in the distance we hear an answering roar.  The rest of the family is checking in!  For a while we sit stunned at this magnificent animal symphony as the lion roar and grunt, sometimes in turn, sometimes in harmony…  It is quite honestly an almost overwhelming experience and renders every one of us humbly subdued as we make our way back to camp.

Ivory Lodge

In the bush, off the beaten track, wild and exotic intimacy exists in six exclusive luxury suites at Ivory Lodge, Lion Sands.  Each is placed with exaggerated care so as to seem totally isolated and completely private.  Thatch tops glass walls that bring outside in and ensure uninterrupted views of fertile untamed riverine vegetation.  Set in the private reserve of the Sabi Sands in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa and bordering world-renowned Kruger National Park.
On arrival, we are greeted with a sincere and personal welcome from the lodge manager and a refreshing iced beverage (and a damp hand towel to wipe away the dust from the drive and possibly the memories of frantic civilization); we are directed along raised wooden walkways to the main dining and reclining area.  There the activities and dining options are explained to us and we are introduced to our private butler, Solly, whom he assures us with wide open smile, will make our every need his singular pleasure.  As we discuss the weather (a necessary topic of conversation in all polite African discourses), and what the next few days might bring, Solly points out across the river.  There he indicates to us the slow and deliberate path of a loan bull elephant making his way down the rise and toward the river in front of us.  We marvel at this enormous beast and his lazy yet purposeful movement as he tests and tastes each tree and shrub in his path.  So quiet as to be almost unheard.
As our luggage is taken to our room we are given a private tour of the Lodge’s wine cellar.  A small but exceedingly well stocked cellar built beneath the main lodge and set deep into the side of the valley.  It is climate controlled and this is enhanced by the surrounding dense deep riverine shade. 
Our suite is ready and we are led with dignified ceremony towards oversized double wooden doors, beautifully carved and decorated, and as these are thrown open for us, stand in awe.  In front of us stretches all the magnificence of the African bush, right at the edge of our own private infinity pool!
 To our left and right are glass walls, behind one, a generous 4 poster bed delicately canopied in snowy white gauze, and the other houses our private lounge and dining area.  All the furnishings are in crisp white and neutral tones with accents of dark wood – nothing competes with the scenery.  At the bottom of the huge king bed is an enormous double paned sliding window giving uninterrupted views of the sand river and surrounding bush.  Suddenly those photographs one sees in travel magazines of folk immersed in their private plunge pools gazing out over the bush with wild game in the background, don’t seem so staged!
The bedroom is completely open-plan separated by clever use of half walls and steps leading to different levels.  The wash basins and vanity are on a level above the bed and the bath behind that.  The bath is a marvel.  A huge white ceramic bowl perched on a spotless floor with large fluffy white towels and enough bubble bath to seduce the most ardent shower taker.  Hard to do when on the other side of the glass doors is a private sun-filled courtyard with an outdoor shower as its centre-piece!  Wherever you are there is a view outside and yet nowhere can I see another person or habitation.  We feel completely on our own and yet completely safe enclosed in our luxurious glass and thatch home. 

Safari II – Sabi Sands

The drive is a pleasant one on good roads which wind their way through hillsides that are planted to lumber, mainly the tall, straight eucalyptus tree, which fills the air with a clean camphor smell. As one descends the rolling hills the scenery changes to large banana plantations. These in turn give way to the bushveld so synonymous with big five country; wide open savannah grasslands, acacia woodland, riverine bush and thornveld.

We arrive at the entrance to the Sabi Sands Park and pay a modest fee to pass through the high game fence for the rest of the drive on sand and dirt roads. We are warned to stay in our vehicles and are immediately aware of a heightened sense of alertness.

Within minutes of leaving the gates a little family of warthogs trots across our path – ugly and endearing,  their large whiskery faces with wart-like bumps. It seems as if they pause for photographs and then quickly dart off, their little tails shoot straight up in the air as they “play” follow their leader through the grass. Just a little way down the road we catch sight of a monolithic mammal right out of Noah’s ark – the legendary rhinoceros. At first we see only two of these huge beasts quietly grazing when suddenly from behind the protective rump of one, a baby peeps out. A perfect miniature in every sense! It is a small family group. Thus the tone is set for our safari.

Safari – in the old continent

Anticipating any adventure is pleasurable but there is something decadently thrilling about the anticipation of a safari! We were on a small propeller driven plane (my husband affectionately calls them “puddle jumpers”) flying out of the Indian ocean port city of Durban north towards the greater Kruger National Park for a three night/four day stay in the “bush”. The sky was clear and filled with sunlight as we skirted the coastline and flew a little inland and towards this world famous region renowned for exceptional wild life and a forward thinking approach towards conservation of land, vegetation and its game.

We landed at Nelspruit airport, or KMIA – Kruger Mpumalanga International Airport, a delightful thatched building which looks to all intents and purposes like a bush lodge – and stepped straight out onto the tarmac to walk to the arrivals and baggage hall. I must make reference to South African pilots here, who all seem to take the landing of their craft as a point of pride and measure of their professionalism. Being used to the shuttle-bus attitude of the American air industry and the way that their planes seem to leap out of the air towards the earth landing with a bone-jarring thump and bounce, it was entirely refreshing to enjoy smooth earthly arrivals with such obvious care and skill. And it is not unusual to hear the pilot apologise if he feels the landing was a little rough and not up to his usual exacting standard in any way at all!

There are various ways of reaching the Private Game Reserves or Kruger NP from the KMIA. It is possible to fly in via small plane as many of the lodges either have their own or share a common dirt air-strip. It is certainly the most direct and convenient way for many and is easily added onto the safari as an air transfer. More common is a road transfer from the Mpumalanga airport to the lodge and these can be as shared or arranged as a private transfer, most often by a local transport company. Some of the lodges have their own vehicles. By taking a shared transfer it is possible to visit some of the other lodges on the way which is an interesting insight into the general area. We opted to hire a car from KMIA and drive the 2hr distance and include that as part of our experience.

We were headed for Sabi Sands which is one of the private reserves bordering the Kruger National Park to the south and west. It is where our lodge is situated. These private reserves have exclusive traversing rights for the guests who stay at the lodges and camps and as there are no fences between them and the National Park, the animals are free to move around this large area. In recent years the governments of Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa have co-operated in the formation of a Transfrontier Border Park creating ever larger areas for the wild animals to roam which in turn has relieved the pressure on the land and created ever healthier herds, flocks and prides – and outstanding game viewing opportunities for the visitor!

101 Painted Fall Way, Cary, NC 27513 | email: su@lazylizardtravel.com or keith@lazylizardtravel.com | tel: (919) 463-8009
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